Frank O’Donnell: Cass Sunstein’s Appalling Anti-Regulatory Reign

Our guest blogger is Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch.

I don’t take pleasure in saying “I told you so.”

In this case, I am especially pained to say my predictions about President Obama’s “regulatory czar” Cass Sunstein have borne out.

You may recall the background: in 2009, President Obama nominated his old friend, Harvard Law School Professor Sunstein, to run the White House Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, an office little known outside the Beltway but one with enormous power. It is, in effect, the gatekeeper over all major rules issued by agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency


In his prior life as an academic, Sunstein had raised serious questions about environmental requirements. He had urged, for example, changing the Clean Air Act to require that national clean air standards pass a cost-benefit test — a change in the law long sought by big corporate polluters who understood this meant a weakening of the law in the real world. (National clean air standards today are supposed to be based only on science so the public can know if the air is actually safe to breathe.)

I noted that had a Republican president nominated someone with similar views, public interest groups (and Democrats) would be screaming. But progressives and most Democrats basically gave Sunstein a pass.

His nomination was approved on a 57–40 vote. Once approved, Sunstein has generally worked in the office’s typical obscurity. Following his advice, the president issued an executive order demanding that agencies review existing regulations. This was generally viewed as a political concession to anti-governments groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In perhaps his best-publicized activity, as the New York Times recently reported, Sunstein joined forces with then-White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley to torpedo the EPA’s attempt to update national clean air standards for smog. Sunstein basically imposed his own illegal cost-benefit ideology on the decision. As a result, many millions of Americans will be breathing dirty air longer. To compound a bad decision, he then lied about it, claiming politics was not a factor.

If anyone thought this was an isolated incident, I suggest you read a provocative new report by the Center for Progressive Reform. It is the most thorough analysis I have ever seen of Sunstein’s office, and the results are pretty appalling. It documents in great detail how big business groups are using Sunstein as a tool to weaken health and safety standards. It has also become a tool of the administration’s foolish political efforts to mollify the business lobbies.


During a six-month period, Sunstein’s office literally met with nearly 6,000 lobbyists, 65 percent of whom represented industry, compared to only 12 percent representing public interest groups. In a shocking discovery, the analysis found that Sunstein’s office changed more rules than it did under the prior Bush administration!

The analysis notes that EPA rules were singled out for special review and change and that Sunstein’s office frequently ignores public disclosure requirements.

The report ends with a call for reform that it not likely to happen anytime soon. Indeed, even as I write, Sunstein’s office has become the conduit for meetings with dirty electric power companies who are seeking to weaken and include new loopholes in upcoming EPA standards aimed at cutting mercury and other life-shortening toxics from coal-fired power plants.

Will Sunstein strike again, as he did in the ozone decision?